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In Perspective: Joseph Bazalgette

Joseph Bazalgette

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Joseph Bazalgette is a largely forgotten figure, left on the fringes of British history. As the Chief Engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, Bazalgette saved thousands of lives with his design for a city-wide sewer network. His efforts were instrumental in relieving London of the cholera epidemic that swept through the city in the 19th century. Through his designs, Bazalgette had a tremendous impact on the infrastructure of London and the health of its citizens.

Born on 28th March 1819 in the North London suburb of Enfield, Bazalagette was the son of a captain in the Royal Navy. Bazalgette began his career working as a railway engineer, gaining experience in land drainage and reclamation. He set up his own private practice in 1842. Within three years, he was deeply involved in the expansion of London’s railway network. The role was incredibly stressful, playing a part in Bazalgette’s nervous breakdown in 1847. He wrote in his memoir, ‘I began my work when the great railway mania broke out, and nearly killed myself before I joined the old Commissions of Sewers.”

It was in 1848 while Bazalgette was recovering that London’s ‘Great Stink’ took hold of the capital. The city suffered from such unpleasant smells that Parliament ground to a halt and prompted immediate action. The problem had been mounting for years, with an ageing sewer system that could no longer cope with the massive amounts of waste produced by the city’s factories and growing population. It caused a wave of cholera outbreaks and other public health crises.

Bazalgette began engineering a solution in 1859. He created a system that would channel the waste through eighty miles of underground pipes into a series of main intercepting sewers, which then transported the waste from the Thames out to sea. The project was a huge undertaking and it saw the construction of large embankments alongside the Thames. Bazalgette designed the tunnels in a V-shape to maintain sufficient water flow and to allow the pipes to hold more weight above them, correcting the problems that had led to the Great Stink. Due to the design, the system was able to handle the increased pressure. Most of London was connected to Bazalgette’s sewer network between 1866-1870, both Victoria and Albert embankments had opened.

Overall, the new system improved the well-being of people in London and Bazalgette was knighted for his services to engineering in 1875. He made one of the single biggest contributions to the health of Victorian Londoners. It is because of his work that the River Thames has been hailed as an environmental success story. It is one of the cleanest metropolitan rivers in the world.

Bazalgette died in 1891 and he is commemorated by a monument on the Victoria Embankment. In addition, a few statues have been erected in memory of Bazalgette who helped saved London from descending into a dumping ground. Without him, London would not be where it is today – perhaps that’s praise enough for this great engineer.

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